The Costs of Cancer Care

By Holly Woodcock

I’m a nurse and a patient. My story starts out during Thanksgiving of 2009 when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at the tender age of 47. Stage IIIB. Metastatic, but curable they told me. After three surgeries, hospital stays, blood work, traveling, chemotherapy for six months, all the follow-ups with physicians, CT scans, the medications needed at home, I’m still paying.
As a consumer, it’s really enough to make a head spin. As a nurse, I’m aware of hospital costs. I know it’s expensive. Expenses add up fast as $100 co-pay after $100 co-pay are requested with every doctor’s visit, every clinic visit, and every X-ray visit. Cancer didn’t take into account all the income I’d lost post-surgery or the days I couldn’t go to work because I was too weak or too sick to go in. It ate through my sick leave and savings quickly. I am so fortunate to have great health insurance.

Undeniably, my insurance company paid well. I’d look at the explanation of benefits every month, astonished and overwhelmed that chemotherapy could actually cost $75 thousand a month or that one shot to keep my white blood cell count could cost $7 thousand and I needed two every month. It’s still bizarre to think I paid them to inject poison in my veins.

When the end of chemo came in 2010, I was well over $35 thousand in the red – all from stupid cancer. Costs are crippling cancer patients to the point of losing jobs, losing businesses, losing homes, having liens, going bankrupt. Sadly, due to complications from treatment, I can no longer do bedside nurse. I am currently going back to school for my master’s degree to teach nursing students. A lot of people don’t have that option. What happens to them?

The economic impact of cancer care alone in the U. S. during 2011 was astronomical, annual costs were estimated to be at $88.7 billion.  Yes, that’s a billion with a “B”.  In 2012, it was estimated that over 15% of Americans didn’t have insurance. Those that are “lucky” enough to have insurance are burdened with the higher costs of deductibles, they’re also paying for the newer FDA approved medications that are helping win the fight.  A drug that cost a few hundred dollars last year is being replaced with the newer drugs this year, costing consumers tens of thousands a month now. When I sat with my oncologist for the first time, we talked about side effects of chemo. The tingling in my hands and feet, the mouth sores, how my balance would be effected, how I could only eat and drink room temperature foods, to cover up when it’s cold because it will feel like shards of glass are ripping your skin off. He never mentioned the side effect of my finances. He didn’t tell me just how expensive it would be to fight the beast.

Countless colorectal cancer friends I’ve met along this journey have similar stories. One friend lost his business and his home. He’ll never work again due to the after-effects of this treatments. Even though his insurance paid, his treatments ate up his retirement, his savings and his way of life. Another friend, after his wife died, filed for bankruptcy from the resulting medical bills. His credit is ruined, he drives a $200 car and lives with his mom.

Cancer expenses are about more than just money. Cancer has cost us peace of mind, it’s knowing you wake up in the morning and can never go back to a job you love, one that you planned on retiring from. It’s about keep the wolf away from your back door.
We’ve worked hard and we’ve mostly dug out from the bills that cancer gave us. I’ve sat my husband down and told him however, under no terms, if this cancer returns, I’m not treating it. I refuse to leave him bankrupt. I believe I live in the richest country in the world, with the best medical care available; fighting cancer shouldn’t have to make you pick between treatment and food or medicine and rent.

Holly Woodcock is a nurse from Idaho and is one of the winners in our 2015 Costs of Care Essay Contest.

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